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Paul Sparks - Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for "Culture of English Speaking Countries Lessons", Xiangtan Normal University...

 

 

WESTERN CULTURE AND SOCIETY: THE UNITED KINGDOM (UK) -

England

 

Source of Information: "Lonely Planet" travel guide website http://www.lonelyplanet.com

England: England is looking forward into the new century while trying to forget many of the developments of the previous 100 years. That period witnessed the fall of the empire, the loss of the trading base and the nation's inability to adjust to a diminished role in the modern world - from colonial empire to member of the EC. But while the Family may have taken a right Royal battering, many of the other august institutions at the cornerstone of British life have muddled their way through with a stiff upper lip and a strong sense of protocol.

The notion of England as a gentle, fabled land freeze-framed sometime in the 1930s, when community life revolved around the post office, the country pub and the local vicarage. The country is now better known for vibrant cities with great nightlife and attractions, contrasted with green and pleasant countryside and national parks. After five years of Tony Blair's Labour government, 'new' Britain is a country with a fresh and cuddly Royal family and an alternative aristocracy of media stars like Victoria and David Beckham to capture the ire and adoration of the masses. Still, a country that gives a wig-wearing ex-junkie balladeer a knighthood must be doing something right.

Area: 129,720 sq km (50,085 sq mi)
Population: 50 million
Capital city: London
People: Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians
Language: English
Religion: Church of England, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh
Government: Parliamentary Democracy
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister: Tony Blair

GDP: US$1254 billion
GDP per head: US$21,200
Annual growth: 3%
Inflation: 3%
Major industries: Banking and finance, steel, transport equipment, oil and gas, tourism
Major trading partners: EU & USA
Member of EU: yes
 

History: The first-known inhabitants of England were small bands of hunters, but Stone Age immigrants arrived around 4000 BC and farmed the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, constructing the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who began arriving in 800 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages (the former is still spoken in Scotland, the latter in Wales).

The Romans invaded in 43 AD and took only seven years to quell resistance and control most of England. The Scottish and Welsh tribes were more of a problem, resulting in the building of Hadrian's Wall across northern England to keep out the marauding Scots. The Romans brought stability, nice and straight paved roads and Christianity; in return, the Brits gave the Romans a headache and a dent in the empire's expense account. The Romans were never defeated, they just sort of faded away around 410 AD as their empire declined.

Tribes of heathen Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to move into the vacuum, absorbing the Celts, and local fiefdoms developed. By the 7th century, these fiefdoms had grown into a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had come to collectively think of themselves as English. By the mid-9th century, Vikings had invaded northern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire and the Danes were making inroads into eastern England. By 871, only Wessex - the half-Saxon, half-Celtic country south of the Thames - was under English control. At this low point, the English managed to neutralise the Vikings' military superiority and began a process of assimilation.

The next invader was William of Normandy (soon to become known as William the Conqueror), who arrived on the south coast of England in 1066 with a force of 12,000 men. After victory at the Battle of Hastings, he replaced English aristocrats with French-speaking Normans. The Normans built impressive castles, imposed a feudal system, administered a census and, once again, began to assimilate with the Saxons.

The next centuries saw a series of royal tiffs, political intrigues, plague, unrest and revolt. The Hundred Years War with France blurred into the domestic War of the Roses and enough Machiavellian backstabbing among royalty to make the present foibles of the monarchy seem even more trifling than they already are. In the 16th century, Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties led to the split with Catholicism. Henry was appointed head of the Church of England by the English Parliament and the Bible was translated into English. In 1536, Henry dissolved the smaller monasteries and confiscated their land as the relationship between Church and State hit rocky times.

The power struggle between monarchy and Parliament degenerated into civil war in the mid-17th century, pitching Charles I's royalists (Catholics, traditionalists, the gentry and members of the Church of England) against Cromwell's Protestant parliamentarians. Cromwell's victory segued into a dictatorship, which included a bloody rampage through Ireland, and by 1660 Parliament was so fed up that it reinstated the monarchy.

A period of progressive expansionism followed, as England collected colonies down the American coast, licensed the East India Company to operate from Bombay and eventually saw Canada and Australia come within its massive sphere of influence. At home, England exerted increasing control over the British Isles. The burgeoning empire's first setback occurred in 1781 when the American colonies won their war of independence.

Meanwhile, Britain was fast becoming the crucible of the Industrial Revolution as steam power, steam trains, coal mines and water power began to transform the means of transport and production. The world's first industrial cities sprung up in the Midlands, causing severe dislocation of the population. By the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Britain had become the world's greatest power. Its fleet dominated the seas, knitting together the British empire, while its factories dominated world trade. Under prime ministers such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution were addressed; education became universal, trade unions were legalised and most men were enfranchised - women had to wait until after WWI.

Britain bumbled into the stalemate of WWI in 1914, resulting in the senseless slaughter of a million Britons and a widening gulf between the ruling and working classes. The latter set the stage for 50 years of labour unrest, beginning with the 1926 Great Strike and growing throughout the 1930s depression. Britain dithered through the 1920s and '30s, with mediocre and visionless government, which failed to confront the problems the country faced - including the rise of Hitler and imperial Germany.

Britain's never-say-die character was forged in WWII under the guidance of Winston Churchill. Britain bounced back from Dunkirk, the relentless Luftwaffe air raids and the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong to win the Battle of Britain and play a vital role in the Allied victory. Despite the euphoria, Britain's resources and influence were exhausted and its empire declined as first India (1947), then Malaysia (1957) and Kenya (1963) gained their independence.

It took until the 1960s for wartime recovery to be fully completed, but by then Britons had supposedly 'never had it so good', according to their prime minister, Harold Macmillan. The sixties briefly repositioned swinging London back at the cultural heart of the world, as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, David Bailey, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Co strutted their stuff on the world stage. But the sixties weren't all mini skirts and Sergeant Pepper: factionalism in Northern Ireland became overtly violent, leading to the deployment of British troops in 1969. The Troubles, as they are euphemistically known, have been dogging the British and Irish governments and ruining Northern Ireland ever since. The 1970s' oil crisis, massive inflation, the three-day working week and class antagonism also brought reality crashing into the party, and in 1979 the Brits elected matronly Margaret Thatcher to come and mop up their mess for them.

Thatcher broke the unions, privatised national industries, established a meritocracy, sent a flotilla to the Falklands and polarised British society. She became the longest-serving prime minister this century and left such a deep mark on the Brits that even now, going on for a decade after she was dumped by her political party, Baroness Maggie looms large over any discussion of domestic affairs. The ever-so-nice John Major, PM from 1990, failed to rally the nation to the Conservative cause, and was booted out in no uncertain terms in elections in May 1997.

England under PM Tony Blair is a changing place. Asylum seekers, farming, education, health, Northern Ireland and the European Union still polarize opinion, but cautious optimism prevails. How England responds to the increasingly assertive nationalities of Scotland and Wales, and to the changes caused by closer interaction with Europe, will be primary factors in the future identity of the country.

Culture: England's greatest artistic contributions have come in the fields of theatre, literature and architecture. The country is also, right or wrong, a treasure house of art and sculpture, from every age and continent. Most visitors are overwhelmed by the stately homes of the aristocracy, and England's fine collection of castles and cathedrals. Though motorways, high rise and tawdry suburban development characterize England's 20th century architectural heritage, modern architects like Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rodgers are creating dramatic and innovative structures like the Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and Lloyds of London building.

Anyone who has studied English literature at school will remember ploughing through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Morrissey, and painful though it might have been at the time, no-one can deny England's formidable contribution to the Western literary canon.

Perhaps England's greatest cultural export has been the English language, the current lingua franca of the international community. There are astonishing regional variations in accents, and it is not unusual to find those in southern England claiming to need an interpreter to speak to anyone living north of Oxford.

The majority of English who profess religious beliefs belong to the Church of England, which became independent of Rome in the 16th century. Other significant protestant churches include Methodist, Baptist and Salvation Army. One in 10 Britons consider themselves Catholic, and there are now over a million Muslims and sizeable Hindu, Jewish and Sikh populations. Despite this variety of religions, most English are fonder of their churches as architectural icons of grandeur and stability than as houses of religious piety.

Though England is not famous for the quality of its cuisine, London's recent renaissance in quality is spreading to the provinces. Travellers will find a remarkable variety of dining options from all over the world, though those on a budget should be wary of overdosing on fish 'n' chips, eggs 'n' bacon, and sausages 'n' mash.

Anyone who spends any extended period of time in England will sympathise with the locals' obsession with the weather, although in relative terms the climate is mild and the rainfall is not spectacular. The least hospitable months for visitors are November to February - it's cold and the days are short. March and October are marginal - there's more daylight but it can still be very cold. April to September are undoubtedly the best months, and this is, unsurprisingly, when most sights are open, and when most people visit. July and August are the busiest months, and best avoided if at all possible. The crowds on the coast, at the national parks, in London and popular towns like Oxford, Bath and York have to be seen to be believed.

Environment: England is the largest of the three political divisions within the island of Great Britain. Bound by Scotland to the north and Wales to the west, England is no more than 29km (18mi) from France across the narrowest part of the English Channel. Much of England is flat or low-lying. In the north is a range of limestone hills, known as the Pennines, to the west are the Cumbrian Mountains and the Lake District. South of the Pennines is the heavily-populated Midlands, and in the south-west peninsula, known as the West country, is a plateau with granite outcrops, good dairy farming and a rugged coastline. The rest of the country is known as the English Lowlands, a mixture of farmland, low hills, an industrial belt and the massive city of London.

England was once almost entirely covered with woodland, but tree cover is now the second lowest in Europe (after Ireland). Since early this century the government has been planting conifers to reverse this situation, but the pines have turned the soils around them acid and destroyed large areas of ancient peatland. Other common trees include oak, elm, chestnut, lime (not the citrus variety), ash and beech. Although there isn't much tall flora around, you'll see plenty of lovely wildflowers in spring - snowdrops, daffodils, bluebells, primroses, buttercups and cowslips all lend a touch of colour to the English countryside. On the moors there are several varieties of flowering heathers.

The red deer is the largest mammal in England, and there are plenty of them (as well as fallow and roe deer) around. Foxes prosper, and if you're lucky you may see a badger or hedgehog. Introduced American grey squirrels are forcing out the smaller local red variety. Rabbits are everywhere, while smaller rodents such as the shrew, harvest mouse and water vole are less common (but frightfully cute). England's only poisonous snake, the adder, is rare and protected. Birdwatching is a popular pastime in Britain, but while the numbers and diversity of coastal bird species do not appear to be in danger, the same cannot be said for other British birds - a number of species that were quite common only 25 years ago are rapidly dwindling because of habitat destruction.

England's national parks cover about 7% of the country and include Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Lake District, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the Broads and Northumberland. English national parks are not wilderness areas, but they do include areas of outstanding national beauty - they also tend to be privately owned and provide an antidote to the hectic pace of many cities.

England's climate is mild and damp, with temperatures moderated by the light winds that blow in off its relatively warm seas. Temperatures inland don't get much below freezing in winter (December to February), or much above 30C (86F) in summer (June to August). The north is the coldest area; London, the south-east and the West Country are the warmest. Rainfall is greatest in hilly areas and in the West Country. You can expect cloudy weather and light drizzle in any part of England at any time.
 

Attractions

London: London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won't know where the hell you are, at least the names will look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the city's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. Doing some travelling by bus helps fit the city together.

Canterbury Cathedral: The most impressive and evocative, if not the most beautiful, cathedral in England is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of All England. Like most cathedrals, it evolved in stages and reflects a number of architectural styles, but the final result is one of the world's great buildings. The ghosts of saints, soldiers and pilgrims fill the hallowed air, and not even baying packs of French children can completely destroy the atmosphere. After the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, the cathedral became the centre of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in WWII and parts of the town have been insensitively rebuilt, but it still attracts flocks of tourists, just as it has for the past 800 years - though numbers may decrease now pilgrims are charged a US$5 fee to enter the cathedral.

Stonehenge: Five-thousand-year-old Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe, but it remains both a tantalising mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience. It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known about the site's purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not the site's religious significance but the tenacity of the people who brought some of the stones all the way from South Wales. It's estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch. The downside of Stonehenge is that it's fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes between new age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.

The Cotswolds: This limestone escarpment, 18 miles north-east of Bristol, overlooking the Severn Vale, is an upland region of stunningly pretty, gilded stone villages and remarkable views. Unfortunately, the soft, mellow stone and the picturesque Agatha Christie charm have resulted in some villages being overrun by coach tourists and commercialism. Renowned villages include Bibury (claimed to be the most beautiful village in England); the chocolate-box town of Bourton-on-the-Water; and the breathtakingly pretty Chipping Camden. The best way to explore the Cotswolds is to walk; the 100-mile Cotswold Way is a gem of a hike, full of history and interesting terrain that make the abundance of quaintness easier to swallow.

Oxford: Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, scholarship and bizarre high jinks. The views across the meadows to the city's golden spires are guaranteed to appear in three out of 10 English period dramas, but they manage to remain one of the most beautiful and inspiring of sights. Back in the real world, Oxford is not just the turf of toffs and boffs, it was a major car-manufacturing centre until the terminal decline of the British car industry and is now a thriving centre of service industries. The pick of the colleges are Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen, but nearly all the colleges are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition. Don't kid yourself, you wouldn't have studied any harder in such august surroundings.

York: This proud city attracts millions of visitors, but it's too old, too impressive and too convinced of its own importance to be overwhelmed by mere tourists. For nearly 2000 years it has been the capital of the north, and played a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. Its spectacular Gothic cathedral, medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of teashops and pubs make it a great city for ambling around. York Minster is the largest cathedral in Europe, and right up there with the world's great buildings. The city's Museum Gardens are amongst the most beautiful in Britain and include a number of picturesque ruins and buildings.

Lake District: The most green and pleasant corner of a green and pleasant land, the landscapes of the Lake District are almost too perfect for their own good: 10 million visitors can't be wrong, but they can sure cause a few traffic jams. The area is a combination of luxuriant green dales, modest but precipitous mountains and multitudinous lakes. Each of the lakes has its own distinct character: wisdom holds that Ullswater, Grasmere and Windermere are the prettiest, but Wast Water, Crummock Water and Buttermere are equally spectacular and far less crowded. Be prepared to hike into the hills, or visit on weekdays out of season if you have any desire to emulate the bard and wander lonely as cloud.

Durham: Durham is the most dramatic cathedral city in Britain. It straddles a bluff surrounded on three sides by the River Wear and is dominated by the massive Norman cathedral which sits on a wooded promontory, looking more like a time-worn cliff than a house of worship. The cathedral may not be the most refined in the land, but no other British cathedral has the same impact. The cathedral shares the dramatic top of the bluff with a Norman castle and the University College, while the rest of the picturesque 'city' (population 38,000) huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.

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